Joe Wray and the Dream of Super Saturday 

Published 10:21 pm Thursday, March 7, 2019

Joe Wray: Theater lover, cultural ambassador, dreamer. A founder of Super Saturday, Wray passed away last summer. The Children’s Theater Festival board is pleased to dedicate Super Saturday 2019 to his memory.  


In its 41st year, Super Saturday is a Tryon phenomenon.  Generations of children have enjoyed the plays, storytellers, magicians, and other facets of this gem of an event. Unique among children’s arts festivals in that it is a one-day event run completely by volunteers, it nonetheless brings in performers of the same caliber as those at bigger festivals.   

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Emmie Mackay, chair of the original Children’s Theater Festival board, expressed hope at the outset that it would become “one of our community’s finest traditions.” And it has, thanks to the efforts of Mackay and her CTF steering committee members, and thanks to many volunteers in the decades since. But by many accounts, its success owes much to Wray.  


Growing up outside Richmond, Virginia, Wray was an arts lover from his early days, going to films, putting on plays in his backyard, and singing on a local radio show. He pursued his love of music and theater throughout his higher education and as he built his teaching career, sponsoring drama clubs, teaching theater classes, and producing student musicals and plays.  


While assistant to the president of Bluefield Junior College in Virginia, Wray fed another passion as sponsor for the college’s international students.  He organized field trips to places such as Washington, DC. “We loved having international students in our home,” says his wife, Frances Wray. “It was part of Joe’s desire to connect with people, to build bridges.”  


Moving to Tryon in 1974, Wray taught at Tryon High and often gave students glimpses of the world beyond their small town.  Heather Chestnut, currently on the CTF board, says he arrived in class one Monday with bagels after a weekend trip to New York. “He told us stories of Broadway shows, and he made me even more determined to have my own New York City experience.”  


In the mid 1970s, Wray became Community Schools coordinator, a program that sought to link school and community resources in new ways. Wray was a natural fit for this position, not least because it provided fertile ground for his greatest strength: dreaming up new ideas.  “He was the idea man,” says Clara Rogers,  a colleague whom he brought onto the first CTF board. “He was always throwing ideas around, always open to everything.”  


Geoffrey Tennant, another colleague and also on that first CTF board, agrees. “He tilled the field while others came behind to sow the seeds.” Tennant says Wray was a dreamer as opposed to a more concrete thinker. “Joe had a different world view. It’s good to have people around you like that—it challenges you to find what is valuable about the way they think.” 


One dream Wray and his colleagues threw around was bringing a children’s theater festival to town, such as one would normally find in a larger city. Like trips to DC, like bagels from New York, Wray recognized an opportunity to give children something they might not get otherwise: in this case, a chance to experience professional theater.  


The idea of a day of children’s theater drew enthusiastic response, and a plan evolved. Some CTF committee members attended showcases to line up performers. Others made the rounds of businesses and wrote hundreds of letters soliciting support, while still others asked churches to provide venues.  


Like his fellow CTF  committee members, Wray did whatever it took to get the festival going: collecting performers’ tech equipment, making backdrops and venue signs, and functioning, says Tennant, as a “grand supervisor” for any glitches that might arise. “He was a great supporter of Super Saturday,” says Mackay. “He was always there to lend a helping hand.” 


Rogers says Wray created a positive environment that “gave you freedom to say what you felt. He saw your forte and got you on it.” His enthusiasm was contagious, and, inexorably, “he had us doing more than we thought we could.” 


Rogers says for Wray, “there were no roadblocks.” Once, he suggested they bring internationally famous mime Marcel Marceau to  town. The board was skeptical, but Wray persisted. He made the call and was turned down, but that didn’t stop him from generating more ideas.  “Joe would never let an idea go,” says Rogers.  


Tennant agrees that Wray was the one who said, “you never know until you try.” It has taken thousands of volunteers to pull off  Super Saturday over the years, but its launch was spurred in no small part by Wray’s “spark that lit the fire,” in Rogers’ words.  


“Super Saturday was an experiment,” says Tennant. He says that if you have as large a vision as bringing the arts to your children, you might as well go all the way and make it a Super Saturday. “You might as well shoot for the stars.”  


The stars were clearly where Joe Wray and his CTF cohorts were aiming, and thousands of children have benefited from their–and especially Wray’s–outsized aim and vision.   


Main-stage performance tickets are now on sale at the Super Saturday box office in the Tryon Fine Arts Center lobby. Call 828-283-0379 to reserve, and visit for more information.